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    What is gaslighting? Definition, examples, and advice on dealing with it

    Updated 19 January 2023 |
    Published 02 December 2022
    Fact Checked
    Holly Kozee, PhD
    Medically reviewed by Holly Kozee, PhD, Psychologist, Empower Therapy for Women, Alabama, US
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    Telling you what you can and can’t wear, asking you not to see that one friend, and blaming you when they get in a rage … Sound familiar? This might seem like normal relationship behavior, but could it also be gaslighting? A Flo expert explains everything you need to know. 

    If you’re a fan of romantic comedies or reality TV, you’ll likely know the feeling of desperately wanting your favorite character to realize they’re being manipulated by their partner. We’ve all thought it: Girl, listen to your best friend and dump them already

    Spotting the signs of emotional and mental abuse, of which gaslighting is one kind, can be easy when they’re clearly laid out for us on screen. But they may not be as obvious when they crop up in real-life situations. You might not know what the definition of gaslighting is.

    Susan Masterson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and Flo board member, Kentucky, US, explains the key thing to remember about what gaslighting means: “If you detect a pattern from someone who keeps making you feel like you’re ‘wrong’ about things you know to be true, you are probably being gaslit.”

    But gaslighting behavior isn’t always so clear-cut, making it pretty tough to spot at times. So what is the definition of gaslighting, and is it a bit more serious than social media sometimes makes it out to be? 

    What is gaslighting? 

    While you might have first heard the term on TikTok, the phrase “gaslighting” has actually been around since the mid-20th century — all thanks to a movie. Released in the United States in 1944 — with an earlier British version put out in 1940 — the film Gaslight follows a young woman whose husband manipulates her into madness. 

    “In the movie, the husband did a number of things to convince his wife she was ‘insane’ so he could have her committed to a mental institution and keep her late aunt’s riches,” explains Masterson. “It’s used today to describe the process when someone says and does things to make you think what you know to be true is ‘in your head’ or that things are your fault when they are, in fact, not.”

    And while gaslighting in popular culture usually follows the same formula and appears between characters who are dating, Masterson says it can happen in any situation. 

    “Gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship — be it with a partner, a friendship, or in a family setting — where someone wants to put the other person in a position of relative weakness to keep them around or to control the dynamic,” she explains.

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    Typical behavior and signs of gaslighting

    The difficult thing about gaslighting is that it can range from incredibly subtle behaviors (like convincing you that something didn’t happen when it did) to more obvious incidents. Masterson says there isn’t a checklist of “typical” signs, but there are some examples you might look out for. 

    Gaslighting examples

    • You might disagree with someone about a previous conversation. You’re sure that they said something, but they’ve changed their story now that they know they’re in the wrong. This is gaslighting if the person is making you believe that your memory is wrong in order to manipulate or isolate you. 
    • During a heated discussion, someone tells you that your coworkers, friends, or family don’t like you as much as you think they do. If they do this in an attempt to isolate you, then it can be considered gaslighting. They may even disguise it as telling you that it’s “for your own good.”
    • The person you’re dating touches you in a way that’s too rough or inappropriate. You protest and ask them not to do it again, and they tell you to stop overreacting and to lighten up.
    • A friend makes a joke at your expense. You ask them not to treat you like that, and they tell you that it was only a joke, and they weren’t even talking about you. 
    • A partner, friend, or family member is physically aggressive toward you. When you push them away, they blame you for making them mad or jealous enough to do it. They make you feel responsible for their feelings and behavior.  

    Gaslighting is just one way that someone may try to control you. And it can often be used to justify other behavior, such as physical harm, financial manipulation, or digital abuse. 

    For example, someone might make you feel like your feelings aren’t a priority or that they’re silly. They might make you feel like you can’t do anything right or that you shouldn’t see certain people. This is emotional abuse and is linked to gaslighting. 

    Alternatively, you might feel like you’re being controlled through your finances once you start earning your own money. This could be in the form of being given an allowance, not being allowed to make certain purchases without asking permission, or having your paycheck deposited into someone else's account so you can’t access it. 

    Digital abuse is where someone might tell you who you can and can’t follow or speak with on social media. It also includes someone using online or GPS technology to track your activities.